/ 19 November 2022

‘Syndicates are behind stock theft’ in South Africa

Stock-out: A farmer brings his cattle home after a day of grazing. Subsistence farmers are particularly hard hit by stock theft, which is on the increase in a number of provinces. (Paul Botes/M&G)

Livestock theft is on the rise, with devastating consequences for subsistence and commercial farmers, and the red meat economy generally.

Several recent cases, in the North West, Free State, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, suggest the involvement of organised crime syndicates.

A livestock thief could be a neighbour, a local livestock speculator or even a livestock auctioneer, said Jess de Klerk, a farmer in the Paul Roux area of the Free State.

He said the extent of the theft indicated that it was “simply too great to just be sold on the informal market”.

“Stolen stock are rebranded and then added once again into the production chain where they are sold at auctions to farmers, livestock speculators and abattoirs. Stock theft, as such, is then a specialised, organised crime,” he added. 

“It is high time that this industry is cleaned up. Farmers must take responsibility for branding their stock and having the correct documentation filled out to avoid the possibility of a criminal record. Auctioneers and speculators can no longer shrug and say that they did not know,” he said.

In January this year, cattle worth more than R1 million were recovered in Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.

This week, seven suspects appeared in the Molopo magistrate’s court in Mmabatho, North West. They are accused of stealing 43 head of cattle last week from Ottoshoop pastor Piet Thlabanyane.

The suspects were charged under the Stock Theft Act. 

“They took 20 of my breeding stock, 17 of my 12- to 18-month-old cattle, and six newly born calves,” Thlabanyane said. 

He estimated the value of the stolen Bonsmara cattle at R500 000.

The suspects were arrested after a farmer noticed a truck and a bakkie with a trailer carrying livestock, according to police reports.

The farmer notified other farmers and farming association members in the area, and they tracked the bakkie to a farm between Mahikeng and Lichtenburg.

The police were notified, and the suspects were arrested while trying to leave the farm. Nine cattle were recovered. A truck linked to the theft was also intercepted by the police. It was carrying 18 cattle, which the driver failed to account for. Further investigations by the police led them to another farm where 14 cattle were discovered and taken by the police. 

Nkateko Letti scans the road parallel to a fence in Limpopo. (Ilan Godfrey/Getty Images)

The seven defendants were granted bail and released on Wednesday, with strict conditions. The court placed Willem Petrus Boshoff (R10 000), Carel Stephan Wallis (R12 000), Ntlhothana Motswabangwe (R5 000), Rapula Letsapa (R3000), Johannes Wessel (R5 000), Simon Wessel (R5 000) and Janine Hill (R5 000) under house arrest, permitting them to only attend their places of work.

National Prosecuting Authority regional spokesperson Henry Mamothame said in a press statement that stock theft was rife in North West, leading the authority’s director to appoint a senior prosecutor to represent the state.

In a separate case last year, the chief director at the North West department of education, Gift Ramadie, and his worker were charged with stock theft in the Delareyville magistrate’s court, after about 100 cows and calves were found in their possession. The animals reportedly included a stud bull valued at R120 000 and six stud Bonsmara cows valued at an estimated R189 000.

Eleven cattle were positively identified by owners, while others were taken by the police for further investigations. Their brand marks had been tampered with.

According to National Stock Theft Prevention Forum chairperson Willie Clack, “Livestock was predominantly stolen for survival or for … slaughter in previous times, but these days the modus operandi has shifted to a lucrative economic crime attracting organised crime syndicates.

Threat: Zastron farmers in the Free State and the army check the Lesotho border fence. The farmers lose hundreds of thousands of rand to stock theft each year, allegedly by heavily armed members of syndicates. (Mlungisi Louw/Volksblad/Gallo Images)

“Economically, the crime affects the business enterprise of every livestock producer, irrespective of whether the producer is a commercial farmer or small-scale farmer, and is the most significant obstacle in sustainable livestock production and food security,” he said.

“Value and disposability are strongly related concerning livestock theft, and both aspects are present when perpetrators intend to sell stolen items. All stolen goods lose value when stolen, except livestock. Depending on the offender’s motive livestock is sold at market value at auctions or abattoirs for cash.”

Earlier this year, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said livestock theft was out of control, and the police seemed to be unable to investigate it properly.

Quoting Police Minister Bheki Cele’s response to his parliamentary questions, Groenewald said only 7 800, or 28.9%, of the 26 923 cases of livestock theft that were reported to livestock theft units between 1 April 2021 and 28 February 2022 have been solved.

“Complaints by farmers include a lack of officers at livestock theft units as well as a shortage of vehicles and lack of expertise. Corruption also plays a significant role and there are allegations that senior police officials are themselves involved in livestock theft syndicates,” Groenewald said.

The province with the greatest number of cases during the April 2021 and February 2022 period was KwaZulu-Natal, with 7 227 reported cases, followed by the Eastern Cape with 5 533 cases.

The province with the worst crime-solving rate is Limpopo, having had just 16.5% of its cases solved, followed by Gauteng at 16.9%.

Clack said the number of cases not reported to the police was increasing and resulted in a skewed picture of the rate of livestock theft.